A Story of a Mother and Daughter and Cancer

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Title: The Cookie Cure: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of Cookies and Cancer
Authors: Susan Stachler With Laura Stachler
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: February 2018
Price: $19.95, paperback, 320 pages

Cancer memoirs vary in their voice and message. Some are slapstick humorous attempts to defy the disease itself. Others, such as the riveting book The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs, delve deeply into the philosophical questions posed when facing mortality. Still others, like When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, provide an intimate window into the fragile, ever-changing world of cancer. However, one common thread of all cancer memoirs, good and bad alike, is the soul-searing moment of diagnosis, hearing perhaps the three most terrifying words imaginable: You have cancer.

Family History of Lymphoma

This common, life-altering dread is captured with an unnervingly delicate buildup in a new cancer memoir, The Cookie Cure: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of Cookies and Cancer. Susan Stachler and her mother, Laura, were what all mother’s ultimately wish for, forging a relationship through the tough years spanning terrible twos through horrific teens and becoming best friends. Susan was a happy, well-adjusted 22-year-old college senior with a new boyfriend. There were complications in the family, however. Her father had recently lost his job and was battling aggressive non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

To keep the family’s finances intact, Laura started a bakery business out of the family home. The drama heats up when Susan comes home from the University of Auburn for the weekend with her boyfriend. To her chagrin, her mother, Laura, had scheduled her an appointment for a yearly physical. The authors’ write: “I stepped on the scale, changed into the paper gown, and sat patiently as the nurse practitioner checked me over. I figured it was about time for her to be through, but she kept running her fingertips up and down, side to side, along my neck and over my collarbone. Susan, have you ever felt anything here? She asked. I stiffened and said no.”

At first her family doctor thought it was an “easy-to-treat” thyroid issue, but further tests revealed that she had non-Hodgkin lymphoma, the same disease her father was battling and the one her aunt had died of. The buildup to the diagnosis is a bit long and overly chatty, but the devastating diagnosis is described in such personal vernacular that the reader feels like a voyeur into the young woman’s shrinking world.

Strong Mother-Daughter Bond

Laura’s sister, Sue, the aunt who died of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, serves as both an underpinning for the story and a literary device to move the exposition along. Laura begins each chapter with a Dear Sue letter in which she speaks to her departed sister as if she’s in heaven. It works, but less would have been more, and there’s some unnecessary sentimental overlap.

So many memoirs like this one end in death or the specter of looming death. The Cookie Cure does not.... This book is, in every sense, a cancer survivorship story.

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The best of these letters focuses on when Laura flashes back and describes the trauma and challenges of Sue’s losing but valiant struggle with lymphoma. She writes: “Dear Sue: Susan and I were planning one of our trips to the mall and she thought I was nuts to suggest taking the wheelchair along. Then dear sister I told her about one of our shopping trips after your cancer had advanced to the point where your throat had closed…. While there you started coughing uncontrollably, your face turned red, as you could not catch your breath. As I looked around for help, you reached out, took my hand, composed yourself and calmly told me not to call for help, you had more shopping to do.” Although the writing is somewhat stilted and sugary, the short descriptions of the day-to-day struggles many patients with cancer have are among the best aspects of this short mother-and-daughter cancer memoir.

After discovering that gingersnaps alleviated the persistent nausea from her daughter’s chemotherapy, Laura goes full bore in her in-home bakery, producing a tasty line of gingersnaps that she and her daughter bring to other cancer patients. Although the details of her successful cancer treatments do not offer enough technical specifics perhaps for readers of The ASCO Post, especially when dealing with her cancer care team, readers get a visceral overview of the ordeal patients with cancer face—and the small things in life that help them on their difficult journey.

Survivorship Story

So many memoirs like this one end in death or the specter of looming death. The Cookie Cure does not. Through extremely hard work and determination, Susan and Laura’s home cookie business built into a national phenomenon, as the media became intrigued by the heartfelt story. This book is, in every sense, a cancer survivorship story, but it is also a story of the doctors and the scientists before the doctors who saved Susan’s life. For years after her final therapy, Susan had the much-dreaded follow-up appointments with her oncologist, Dr. Weens.

After one, Susan ended with the usual refrains, “Bye, Dr. Weens. See you next time.” When her doctor smiled and said, “No Susan, you’re all done. You don’t have to come back anymore,” a relief washed over Susan, realizing that she was officially cured.

The Cookie Cure is a fast read, but there are poignant messages along the way in this story of cancer survivorship that make it a worthwhile recommendation for patients with cancer. ■